How Food Photographer Lauren Vied Allen Creates ‘Stories of Culture’

By Jenny Carless

Lauren Vied Allen has long been drawn to food photography. She’s fascinated by the stories that live at the intersection of people and food—as well as food’s vibrant visual appeal.

“Food transcends all aspects of life. It tells our history, it unites people, it’s used to celebrate and grieve—and everyone has to eat,” Allen explains. “The medium has allowed me to experience all of these things, whether I’m in a studio collaborating with trained chefs and stylists for commercial and editorial work, or in a tiny thatched home in the Belizean jungle documenting tortilla making.”

Allen grew up in a Mexican-American family that always made sure that she knew her culture—where they came from and how music, food, art, and history has shaped their cultural identity.

“Food and travel photography has given me the opportunity to learn how others connect to their cultural identity. Food is much greater than daily sustenance because when people are well fed, we open ourselves to learning about each other,” she says.

Allen studied photojournalism and art history at UNC Chapel Hill and attended a workshop with well-known food photographer Penny De Los Santos. Beyond that, she describes her food-photography training as having consisted of “never putting my camera away and constantly photographing and pushing myself with different lighting techniques and subjects.” In 2015, the Adobe Stock premium contributor left her job teaching high school photography to pursue a freelance career.

CHALLENGES—AND REWARDS 

When it comes to working in the studio, Allen finds that keeping the food looking fresh and delicious is the hardest thing.

“Having a great stylist on set is key to keeping food photo-ready,” she says.

The rewards of her labors are long-lasting. “It’s extremely gratifying when I look at that image days, months, or even a year later and still want to eat whatever is in it—or when a subject or client tells me they appreciate having their food photographed with as much love as they have for their food,” she says. “The collaboration in this field is life-giving.”

In Allen’s view, the essential elements for a great food image include light, color, and texture. With lighting, it’s critical to pay attention to the highlights and shadows and to make sure that every aspect of a dish is visible—especially if you’re shooting a hero image for a recipe.

“My goal is more than just a pretty picture,” she says, “so having an image with a story distinguishes it from the rest.”

Here are some of her tips for achieving great photos:

1. Find a bright light source. Look for windows rather than artificial or dark lighting.

2. Know your angles. Overhead, three-quarters, or direct are best for food.

3. Keep a clean background—or own the mess. Crumbs and table mess aren’t easy to clean up in post-production.

4. Keep props relevant to the food. Extra props are just that: extra.

5. Get physically close, instead of using a zoom lens.

Of course, there’s a lot of work involved in food photography—long before you even begin to work with the camera.

Depending on the type of shoot, pre-production involves chefs, stylists, and art directors to determine the overall look, necessary props, the food, and so on.

“Scouting out the restaurant or the studio is important, so you’re aware of the space you have to work in,” Allen says. “Setup includes lighting and modifiers, having a prop table, having a prep table, keeping the kitchen clean and the fridge available for any food—and if in a restaurant, having a space that isn’t interfering with any staff who might be prepping for service.”

ALWAYS EVOLVING

Allen’s photographic style is colorful—and poppy.

“Even with on-location stories, I’m always looking for fun ways to incorporate color and light,” she says.

Over time, she has come to love studio lighting as much as natural lighting.

“I still use a mix of both—depending on the assignment—but once I started getting into studio lighting, I saw the endless possibilities I could create but also appreciated the ephemeral qualities of natural light that no one could ever get with artificial lighting,” she says. “I also began bringing people back into my images—using food as a prop for people or having people to help tell the story of the food.

Part of the fun—and skill—of being a food and travel photographer is the spontaneity—finding delightful images and stories wherever you are and capturing them with the equipment on hand.

“The best camera is always the one you have on you, even if it’s just your phone,” Allen says. “I’m a strong believer that it’s not the equipment that makes an image great, but the talent of the photographer. That said, quality equipment can make your job easier.”

Currently, she shoots with a Nikon D850. She uses Adobe Lightroom for cataloging and archiving, Camera Raw for 90 percent of her imaging, and Adobe Photoshop for the rest.

Allen enjoys seeing her field evolve, and she’s particularly excited about the current movement to have accurate representation in food media.

“It’s thrilling that people of color are finally getting heard—and that the whitewashing of immigrant food in the media is, albeit slowly, coming to an end,” she says. “On the visual side, it’s great seeing unique styling and lighting of food instead of the commercial look that has dominated the industry for years.”

Whatever projects Allen is working on, she finds that she’s constantly growing, changing, and evolving.

“I haven’t settled on a style, but I don’t think anyone ever does,” she says. “As long as I’m documenting the food, people, and stories that are important to me, I’m at my happiest.”

Find more of Allen’s work on her website, Instagram, and Adobe Stock, where she is a premium contributor. Follow her pocket food adventures on the blog The World in a Pocket, where stories of cultural identity are told through the lens of dumplings.